Workers sort roasted gorgon nuts and (below) 'makhana king' Satyajit Kumar Singh. Pictures by Ruchira Gupta
Jugeshwar is a Mahadalit sharecropper living off the edge of a pond in a remote village in Araria. Satyajit Kumar Singh is the CEO of Shakti Sudha Industries in Patna. Both are 46-year- old Biharis. Their lives are interconnected by the euryale ferox.
This water lily with bright purple flowers is a common sight in wetlands and ponds in north Bihar. It produces a seed, called makhana in Hindi and fox or gorgon nut in English. It has become one of Bihar's biggest exports.
A wild food source during the Neolithic period, the makhana was traditionally offered to Goddesses during festivals with pan (betel leaf) and machh (fish) in the Mithila region. It is now eaten roasted and popped or in a raita or kheer in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Asia.
It is a unique high-protein, fat-free crop that helps strengthen the kidney and spleen to relieve diarrhoea, regulate blood pressure, and relieve numbness and aches caused by arthritis. The American Herbal Products Association has given euryale seed a Class 1 rating.
Thanks to its medicinal properties and use as a new form of snack, the demand for makhana has shot up globally. At the time of India's Independence, it grew only in Darbhanga and Madhubani. Now it grows in eight districts and Bihar accounts for 90 per cent of the annual world production with a market value of Rs 500 crore.
Four actors who did not know each other played a role in Bihar being able to match the global demand for this little-known seed.
The first actor was the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. It found a technique for the field cultivation of euryale so that more areas could be covered by this crop and the seed could be harvested for over nine months between July and March. Earlier, the harvesting season was just August and September. Now Araria, Purnea, Katihar, Samastipur, Supaul and Saharsa have begun to grow this lovely water lily.
The second actor was Jugeshwar, a landless Tatma by caste, who would eke an existence by cultivating vegetables on other people's fields. He used to watch makhana pickers from the Malla caste come from Darbangha, pitch tents near his village, wrap up their lungis and walk knee-deep into the jalkar (pond) and come out with a long stem that had a fruit at the end. He followed the Mallas into the pond. At first he was put off by the thorns around the fruit and on the underside of the leaf. But they told him they earned Rs 500 a day for removing the thorns and pulling out the seeds. They taught him how to avoid the thorns and to apply mustard oil on his hands if he was pierced. Now he is an ace makhana picker. This unique inter-caste mobility has led to a larger work force involved in the cultivation, harvesting, shelling, drying, pounding and roasting of the makhana seed. Earlier one caste picked the gudiya (seed), another broke the seed and a third roasted it.
The third actor was the Bihar government that made jalkars or water bodies common property, free of the ownership of contractors or water lords, making it possible for people like Jugeshwar to cultivate and harvest makhana on an impulse.
The fourth actor was Satyajit Kumar Singh who envisioned that this product would replace popular snacks like potato chips and cornflakes and that he could set up a multi-crore business based on a supply chain that would pay five lakh farmers/labourers like Jugeshwar a fair procurement price. He set the ball rolling with a Rs 7-crore agro-based project whose annual turnover is now over Rs 50 crore. It supports 12,000 farmers and producers organised as interest groups and farmer producer groups. In 2006 farmers would get Rs 60 per kilo and they had to sell on credit. A decade later his company pays farmers Rs 240 per kilo directly and right at the time of procurement. Most - 80 per cent - of his supply chain are women.
His vision is to take the company to Rs 5,000-crore turnover in the next ten years selling in the Middle East, UK, US and Europe. With the supply chain that he has worked so hard to create and the roasting machine he has introduced to take care of the most arduous part of processing the makhana seed, he is likely to succeed.
♦ Ruchira Gupta is a feminist campaigner, writer, visiting professor at New York University, adviser to the UN, and founder of Indian anti-sex trafficking organisation Apne Aap Worldwide.
FOLLOW ON TWITTER @RUCHIRAGUPTA AND ON FACEBOOK.COM/ RUCHIRAGUPTAJOURNALIST WWW.APNEAAP.ORG